Seduction & Soul
"People are being persuaded to spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to create impressions that won't last, on people we don't care about."Tim Jackson, ‘Prosperity without Growth
With our brand & marketing hats set at a jaunty angle, we are the mass persuaders. And the more we persuade, the better we’re paid. We win awards as well as applause by displaying the fine art of seduction. ‘Advertising’ as David Ogilvy said ‘is the most fun you can have with your pants on’. So, what’s not to like?
Consuming two planets, the growing gap between have and have nots, & increasing debt-traps, are the unpaid bills from the vortex of consumerism.
externalities & internalities
Cause and effect become disconnected. I’ll pay a premium for a branded cotton shirt, not giving a thought to whether the cotton was grown in Uzbekistan, making the Aral Sea shrivel to a polluted pond, then picked by forced labour and shipped off to be sown in a Bangladeshi sweatshop. As economists tell us, they’re all externalities. And did I need that shirt in the first place? I have more than enough for every day in the week. O reason not the need says Shakespeare’s King Lear when his two heartless daughters stripped him of his 100 knights. Those knights maintained his sense of self-worth, as do our designer wardrobes, and garages of gleaming metal.
While I ignore externalities, I am seduced by internality. The intangible value that makes up a brand is more meaningful and more valuable than the chain of messy realities involved in production.
In the long run, of course, externalities do matter. They may hasten the end of civilization as we know it, with a lot of pain and misery along the way. But the long run has little bearing on the next quarterly results. A three-year plan seems, and in business often is, a lifetime. In our own lives, with children and grandchildren, we are personally invested in the next 50 years or more. It is a dislocation that we uneasily resolve through the mechanisms of ‘we’ and ‘they’. We must meet our financial targets – they (being governments) must sort out the climate and social stuff. (Except we won’t vote for them if they do anything too radical – ‘they’ must persuade other ‘theys’ to do something first.)
nibbling at the edges
The capitalist system, as it currently stands, pulls us all into a more for us sooner mentality. Share prices are based on profits and promises, the bolder, the better. Apart from initial stock offerings, companies do not derive direct benefit from share trading, although top individuals enjoy handsome rewards from short-term boosts.
Stock Exchanges are giant casinos, controlled by an inner circle of analysts, day traders and wealth investors who play ever more arcane games - hedging, selling short and long derivatives of derivatives, that long ago lost touch with the outpouring of products and services into a society and environment sweating at the seams.
As the effects of climate change and social exclusion become more evident and widespread, corporates take their first steps to a sustainable future. Cutting costs is the low-hanging fruit. Hotels wash towels less often, manufacturers use less packaging, utilities send bills digitally. Making statements of intent, greener than thou head offices decorate the urban landscape, corporate social initiatives grace annual reports.
We nibble at the edges & that’s OK, as a start. We’re beginning the dialogue. When we ask ‘how can we be of net benefit to society & the environment’ we open up a conversation that goes deeper that social investment, to the heart of the business.
changing the game
Ultimately, the tide of over-consumption needs to turn. Can car-makers persuade us to take public transport (if they made it, perhaps)? Accelerating production of hybrids, electrics and hydrogen-fuelled cars help keep oil in the ground, but these new technologies do nothing to stop approaching global gridlock.
When will retailers persuade us that last year’s fashion is cool this year? (Patagonia has done it. The headline of their full-page ad in the New York Times at the start of America’s busiest holiday season read Do not buy this jacket. There was nothing wrong with the jacket and Patagonia has no intention of slitting their own throats.
The leaders wrote in their staff blog:
It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption. On the other hand, it’s folly to assume that a healthy economy can be based on buying and selling more and more things people don’t need – and it’s time for people who believe that’s folly to say so.
Nevertheless, Patagonia is a growing business – and we want to be in business a good long time. The test of our sincerity (or our hypocrisy) will be if everything we sell is useful, multifunctional where possible, long lasting, beautiful but not in thrall to fashion. We’re not yet entirely there.
Will the butchery section of any supermarket chain display the environmental benefits of eating less meat? Will Apple forego the right to be the first trillion rand company - even if it is the right thing, for society & the environment, to do - then use their talents to persuade us that a two-year young iPhone can still do the job and all an outdated MacBook needs is a new chip? When for a corporate is enough? Is it as Warren Buffet said ‘Slightly more than I have now’. Who will change the game?
While sudden Damascene conversions may flirt with financial suicide, powering down the same road is leading to an almighty crash. So what’s to do?
strategies for today & tomorrow
We need dual strategies that migrate brands and corporates into the emerging future. Short-term, up to three years, will be business as almost usual – doing things better. Nike will use more recyclables, Nestle will assist rural micro-farmers. At the same time, corporates can invest in a better tomorrow by becoming net beneficial to society and environment. Nike could earn more revenue from performance than fashion while Nestle could work with governments and aid agencies to eliminate infant malnutrition. The longer-term strategy may only bear fruit in 10 years from now – so it’s al the more important it starts now.
Shareholder activism, with increased media attention, is now high up on the board agenda. The Guardian in its ’Keep it in the Ground’ campaign does not advocate liquidating overnight all positions in coal and petroleum. Instead, the website with over 100 million unique monthly visitors suggests to the Bill & Melinda Gates and Wellcome Foundations to make no new investments – and divest over time. Current proven reserves of fossil fuels are three to five times in excess of those we should burn, if we attempt to keep global warming down to less than 2 degrees. These stranded assets are built into share prices and while there still may be some upside in the shares, the risk of collapse should be factored into an investment manager’s strategy.
Brand activism is for now, patchy at best. As good as the marketing industry is at manipulating minds, we play on the periphery of things, selling brand X over brand Y with a potent brew of hope, fear, sexual allure, esteem and success based on the ownership of things. Can our industry do something more? Can we persuade our paymasters and audience to take the longer view? Can we make the world a better, happier place with a timely blend of seduction and soul?